She had seen him only a few times within her years here. In fact there were many scholars and hermits here that she saw only on rare occasions. The lone man in the room was standing in front of a shelf, his reading glasses almost falling off his nose, and was practically half of Freya’s height. She approached him, noting she had no apprehension in approaching this stranger. I must be in shock, she figured.
“Excuse me,” she said quietly, hoping not to frighten him out of his concentration.
He turned his head quickly, his glasses clattering to the floor. “Who are ye?” He squeaked, his eyes small and bright.
She quickly knelt down and picked up his glasses, proffering them to him as she got up.
“What’s that?” He scowled down at her open hand.
“Those aren’t mine, I don’t need glasses, who do ye think I am?”
She opened her mouth, then promptly closed it. “Would you be Dr. Francis?”
“Who are ye?”
“I’m Freya,” she said as she folded up the glasses and kept them in her hand.
“I know no Freya,” he frowned.
This isn’t turning out well, but then again, nothing does. “Would you know of a Dr. Bani?”
He scoffed and turned back to his tome. “Pretentious fool,” he muttered. “Now where was I…”
“Confound it!” He suddenly slammed the tome shut. “Damned dampness makes everything bleed onto the pages! I swear that Daggi, I’ll make him pay!”
This was Drake’s recommendation upon the topic of Terra? “Perhaps these would help?” Freya held up the reading glasses again.
He looked down from the corner of his eye, then twitched and snatched them quickly out of her hand, stuffing them in his pocket. “Say, Freya, are ye a thief in these parts?”
“Oh dear, no.”
“Ah, pity, I would have had many favors for you. I’d ah given you a penny or two for them, too.”
“No, no,” Freya shook her head. “That would not do at all.”
He peered up at her. “Are you sure?”
“Are ye some relative of that drunken fool down there or something?”
“No, but we come from the same country.”
“I can tell that much! Who do ye think I am!”
“Are you Dr. Francis?”
“Why do ye want to know?”
She took a moment for a deep breath. “Because I have just received a book about Terra–”
“That damned fool! Now he’s done it!” He stamped his foot. “I told him to stop! Pretentious! No good trouble-maker!”
She looked at him in wonder. “You speak of Dr. Bani?”
“Who else!” He glared at her.
“Sir, this man has just thrown himself off the cliff outside–”
“Of course he has! Damned fool.”
“How did you…?” She shook her head. “I need to know why.”
“No, ye don’t, now run off will ye?” He waved his hands at her.
She stared at him, unsure of how to react. He stared back at her.
“No go on, thief, run away why don’t ye, go on.” He shooed at her again.
This was foolish, she told herself.
She nodded to him, turned around and left the room. She took the standard method of taking the stairs to her room on the fourth level. Drake had fallen over again. How he managed to know certain peculiarities while being oblivious to the obvious, she would never know. The rest of the library was silent and she quietly made it across the balcony and closed her door.
In the silence, she wound up the rotary lamp beside her bed and sat down on the thin hard mattress. She reached into her coat and pulled out the book recently completed by the now deceased Dr. Bani. She ran her hands across the cover in memory of his work. An Assessment of Terra. She opened to the Table of Contents and found what puzzled her. Black Box. Pandora’s Box. She traced the script handwriting to its corresponding page number and carefully turned the crisp pages. The image of the owl flying away haunted her mind’s eye and she shook her head. No ordinary owl. Owls didn’t reside here on Sacrobless Island, only seagulls and far-traveling birds who took advantage of this lone place to raise their young. But that was a season ago and the fledglings had all grown up and departed in search of more plentiful feeding grounds.
Winter was approaching, and while the elements were minimal, shorter days and longer nights meant darker hours and cold days.
Just as she focused on the chapter, she heard a rustle behind her door and looked up just before there was a knock on her door. This was unusual at such a late hour. She sighed and put the book down on her nightstand, taking mental note of the page she needed to return to. She got up and cracked open her door. A scholar whose name she did not know peered back at her.
“Yes,” she replied. “Who may you be?”
“I am Dr. Mokts, forgive the intrusion at this hour but I was a friend of Dr. Bani and if I may speak to you in private?”
For a scholar, he had a hard time phrasing his sentences. She nodded and opened the door to let him in. His eyes darted around her room and returned to her once she closed the door.
“Dr. Bani has been working on a particular manuscript for quite some time now, and I was curious if you possessed some knowledge of when he would complete it?”
He wasted no time in getting to the point. There were hardly pretenses of small talk in this place, she reminded herself. “What manuscript would you be referencing to?” It wasn’t wise to jump to conclusions here, that she had learned the hard way. It was common for all the scholars to hold multiple projects, and if a scholar spent his time with only one manuscript, it was frowned upon. And insulting if one presumed such singular devotion.
Dr. Mokts hunched his shoulders up and replied in a whisper, “It is of Terra, the lost planet. He refuses to show or discuss this book with anyone, but we have heard him talking to you about it…” his eyes trailed away in what looked like guilt.
“He asked me questions about Terra, that is all. I could not answer most of his curiosities, I am sorry to say.”
“He would not speak of it to you?”
She studied his eyes, shifty as they were. There was an air to him that made her rather uncomfortable. “I am sorry, I cannot say.”
His eyes met hers and a flash of anger glittered back at her for a moment.
She looked down and felt her chest tighten. “I am sorry Dr. Mokts, I must confess to you that Dr. Bani is with us no longer.” She flinched when he suddenly gripped her arm, then his hand sprang back in embarrassment.
“What do you mean?”
“He has passed from Gaia.”
Was that concern or desperation? “Tonight.”
“Fah!” Dr. Mokts threw his hands up. “Of course!” His eyes gleamed back at her. “Then it is finished!”
He shook his head quickly. “Were you there? What did he say?”
“He said ‘do not fear,’” she replied slowly.
“’Do not fear?’” He echoed, his brows furrowing. “’Do not fear,’” he mumbled, his forefinger rubbing his chin. “I see.”
“Dr. Mokts, if I may be so bold, but the hour is late and I wish to be alone now.” His interest in Terra and morbid interest in Dr. Bani’s death increased the awkwardness of his presence.
“Yes, yes,” he muttered and began for the door. She hurried to open it before he would walk into it, and she closed it almost eagerly behind him. Her eyes went to Dr. Bani’s book on her nightstand. Why is he so curious about it? She sat down on her bed and opened the book again to the chapter on the Black Box.
It began with a lulling introduction of the process of Terra’s fusion spell, and hardly a page into the chapter, her eyes felt heavy. She couldn’t recall the last sentence she had read. Dr. Bani disappearing over the cliff flashed through her mind. No point in trying to read this right now. I must rest, if only for a short while. Still rather disturbed from Dr. Mokts’ appearance, she tucked the book under her pillow out of sight and laid down.
The first rays of sunlight opened her eyes and she sat up. A wave of nausea made her hold her breath. Distorted images from the night before darted across her vision. Something’s wrong, she knew immediately. The nausea passed as soon as it had come.
I’ve felt that before. She turned around and lifted her pillow.
Nothing but a blank sheet. The book was gone.
Sleep spell. Dr. Mokts.
She put her feet on the floor. A loud pounding from the door made her heart jump into her throat.
“Who is it?” It hurt to speak with the adrenaline rushing so suddenly.
“Let me in!”
She took a couple breaths. “It’s open.”
The door opened quickly and sure enough, the small frame of Dr. Francis ambled into the room and he shut the door behind him. He stared at her. “Ye look a mess.”
“Someone put a sleep spell on me.”
“You’re a thief?”
She shook her head in exasperation. What is with all the thief references lately! “Not at all, Dr. Francis.”
“Who told ye my name?”
“Drake told me who you are.”
“Oh did he now, that blathering idiot, thinks he knows me now does he.”
“Dr. Francis,” she rubbed her hand across her eyes. “Someone stole Dr. Bani’s book from me while I slept–”
“Well I’ve been up all this time and I been thinking about that book, but I don’t have it so don’t ye look at meh.”
“I didn’t say — oh nevermind.”
“And,” his voice screeched and he pointed a finger at her. “It’s a damn good thing it’s gone. I hope it’s drowned itself in a lake somewhere because that’s all it’s good for. A good drowning.”
“Sir, I am very confused.” Her head began to ache and she looked at the floor.
“That book is a curse! A curse! Daggi help who has it now, they’ll be throwing themself off a cliff now too. But maybe that’s a good thing…” He looked up with a contemplative smirk.
“You may be right,” she said though she didn’t believe that in the slightest. “But–”
“You know what’s your problem Freya?”
She looked at him.
“You’re too boring. Get some life in ye, would ye?”
“Go on, what ye thinkin’? Say it!”
The lump in her throat wouldn’t move. “I think I’ve never met a professor like yourself.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” he nodded. “Now what shall we do about this book?”
“Damn it!” He stomped his foot. “We got a thief here, and I have to say I’d let it go around these parts for a while if it’ll kill off these fools in here, but that would just be part of the plan now wouldn’t it.”
“The curse! Ye boring and dense, Freya, just like everyone else around here.”
“…I don’t understand.”
“Terra’s not dead, ye have to know that much.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Ack!” He clapped his hands. “What in Daggi have ye been doing here then?”
“Dr. Francis, I have never formally met you in the year I’ve been here, how do you know anything about what I’ve been doing?”
“Ye’ve been thievin’.”
She bit her tongue. “That’s enough with the accusations, Dr. Francis.”
“Ye telling me that ye’re hiding from the truth then?”
“Terra is dead.”
“So ye didn’t read a single word of Dr. Bani’s book.”
“I see. Allow me to summarize his blathering: Terra is not dead.”
“Then you must know about the Black Box and Pandora’s Box?”
“Inane theories, that’s all.”
“How do you know all this?”
“We professors know a thing or two, ye know. I known Dr. Bani a long time, and I hated him. Then he went and got that curse on him and now he’s dead, very dead. I checked.”
She started at this. “You…?”
He waved his hand. “What’d he say to ye?”
“He told me that the protectors were coming, and that I need not fear.”
“Yes…mhm, that’s right.” Dr. Francis nodded. “Tales of hope and deceit indeed. If ah were ye Freya,” he turned to her. “I would get out of here as soon as ye can before the curse takes ye too.”
“I would not let a curse take over this place!”
“Ah don’t worry, it won’t happen that fast. But I’m leaving now anyway, I suggest ye do the same.”
“You’re leaving Daguerreo?”
“Of course I am! What about ye?”
Leave Daguerreo, her new home? And with a supposedly cursed book traveling through its magnificent corridors? “Why should I?”
“I just told ye why! Boring, dense, and stupid!”
“I don’t believe it.”
“An unbeliever, eh? Maybe ah stick around a day so I can say I told ye so!”
“You said it wouldn’t happen that fast. And if someone else dies today, I wouldn’t leave until I found that book and burned it as Dr. Bani told me to.”
“He told ye that eh?” He chuckled. “Course he would. Then I’ll stay here,” he walked over to her bed, “and ye let me know when someone keels, eh?”
She stared at him in disbelief.
He sat on her bed beside her and began to raise his legs to lay down. Then he paused, looked her and stared. “Get off my bed, would ye? Ye got your sleep, now I get mine.”
“…” It wouldn’t do to argue with him. I have to find that book. She got up and watched Dr. Francis settle on his back, cross his ankles, and fold his hands across his chest. He unfolded them to rub his nose, sniffed, and refolded his hands. After a moment, he quickly turned his head to glare at Freya.
“Watchin’ me snore won’t help ye! Stop them crazies out there, eh?”
“…” She turned and left the room, glancing at him again before closing the door. He had a smile on his face as he wiggled his head into her pillow.